As we all look back at the past year, it feels like it’s flown by — but also that time has warped in a way and it feels like we’ve been stuck in this pandemic for much longer than we expected.
So here’s my 2021 year in review and an update on whether I managed to meet my goals. I hope this helps you with your own annual review, and feel free to share your achievements and lessons learned in the comments so we can all celebrate (and/or commiserate) together.
- A year of physical and mental health issues — for all of us. You are not alone!
- Joanna Penn — books for authors
- The Creative Penn website and podcast
- The Creative Future
- J.F. Penn — thrillers, dark fantasy, crime, horror
- Books and Travel
- Health, travel, walking
- Financial goals
I hope that you can look back and celebrate whatever you have achieved — even if that is just making it through alive!
Writing remains for all of us a haven for our thoughts, not just words for publication — so I hope you have some time to step back, think and write about the year that is almost over.
If you’d like to share your thoughts, please do leave a comment, or blog about it and tweet me the link. I’ll be back soon with my plans and goals for 2021.
Ever the optimist, I wrote on 1 Jan, 2021: “I’m expecting it to be at least a full pandemic year — from March 2020 to March 2021, but I am really hoping to be back in the world in the second half of this year.”
I also intended 2021 “to be a year of expansion — creatively in terms of what I write, mentally in terms of the things I learn about, and physically, in terms of my health and where I travel (once we're out of the woods with the virus, of course.)”
Well, this year did not turn out as we all hoped, did it?!
Part of me doesn’t want to do this round-up because I don’t really want to relive most of the year. But I’ve always found it incredibly useful to be accountable to you as my audience, and by looking back, we can be thankful to have made it through — and if you’re reading/listening to this, you have made it through — and hopefully, gain some perspective on what might be possible in the year ahead.
I will talk about some of the creative goals I achieved — and missed — but I want to start with something far more important.
If you’re utterly exhausted and struggling with physical and mental health issues, you’re not alone.
I’ve talked about my various issues on the podcast over the year but essentially, it’s been one of my worst years ever in terms of mental and physical health. I share these things not for sympathy, but in the hope that it helps you if you have felt or are still feeling the same way, because we are certainly not alone.
The UK winter lockdown (6 Jan – mid-March 2021) was brutal. I always have some form of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) but it was compounded by sleep issues, resulting from a combination of age-related hormonal changes and pandemic anxiety.
Sleep issues have been reported across the world during the pandemic (APA, The Lancet), but that doesn’t make it easier for any of us experiencing lack of it. That hasn’t resolved, but my anxiety about not sleeping has lessened, and in fact, I have a sleep psychologist on the show in early January since I have a feeling many of you are struggling with it, too.
Another common pandemic issue is feeling constantly tired, on the edge of fatigue, and almost burned-out from the bad news, uncertainty, and anxiety.
I didn’t really have this in 2020. Yes, the fear was real, but I was able to rally all my energy and go hard in making sure my business would survive. In 2020, I wrote a lot of books, did a lot of marketing, worked super hard — and all that probably contributed to feeling even more tired in 2021!
That kind of energy is unsustainable and as the pandemic grinds on, it grinds us all down. We might feel a flurry of hope at some good news, and then it sinks away again as the next wave hits and we can’t help but doomscroll, looking for just that tiny bit of news that might change things.
Then, I contracted the Delta variant in mid-July 2021 along with a ton of other people in the UK. (Yes, I was double-vaxxed. No health or political comments, please!)
I didn’t experience breathing issues and didn’t need hospitalization, so I am grateful for the vaccine — but it was still a very difficult few weeks of sickness (the sickest I have ever been) followed by around two and a half months of recovery. I still don’t have my sense of smell back entirely, and I have more difficulty getting my breath on hills that used to be easy. But given that my cousin was in a coma on a ventilator in the first wave, again, I am very grateful for the vaccine.
The physical symptoms of Covid also came with a surprising amount of mental health issues — depression, anxiety, fear of ever getting better, inability to concentrate, weeping — and I’m not sure that has entirely receded. I read Kris Rusch’s book, Writing with Chronic Illness, while I was sick, and I listened to a LOT of audiobooks.
I did walk the St Cuthbert’s Way in October 2021, more on that later, to prove to myself I was physically better and that helped a lot.
Covid also broke my intermittent fasting regime as I could only taste texture and salt, so I lived on sourdough toast, butter and Bovril for several weeks, and then my energy was so low, and I use food for emotional support — so it all fell apart.
Then in late November, we experienced the stress of international travel to Aotearoa New Zealand to visit my mother-in-law who has advanced cancer. I’m writing and recording this from Auckland.
NZ has (mostly) kept Covid out, as they have one of the strictest border control, quarantine, and isolation regimes in the world. It took months to get a slot in MIQ and then began a bureaucratic nightmare, paperwork, vaccine passports — and what I struggled with the most — seven days of quarantine in a room with no opening window, 23.5 hours a day inside that room with only 30 minutes walking slowly clockwise around a carpark, guarded by the military; tested by people in hazmat gear; and generally treated like a virus-vector rather than a human. Even when we made it out, it took several weeks of chasing bureaucracy to get a vaccine passport because we were vaxxed in the UK, which made us second-class citizens for a while.
As a result of all this, I am seriously out of love with travel — which is something I didn’t think I would ever say. More on that to come as well.
I have also learned a lot about acceptance in terms of a limited physical and mental capacity. My upbringing was very much ‘power of positive thinking’ and a Protestant work ethic and sickness was almost a moral weakness. Take some vitamin C tablets and soldier on. But that has been impossible for much of the year — and I raged against it — but then I had to just let it be, and go back to bed and rest. Memento mori indeed.
All of this to say that this has been one of the most difficult years of my life — and I know my life is not as challenging as many others — so if you feel any of this, then you are not alone.
But despite all this, I did manage to do a few things.
Joanna Penn — Books for authors
One of my goals was to write How to Make a Living with your Writing Third Edition — which I did in the first quarter and narrated the audiobook.
I also intended to finish How to Write a Novel, but once again, I opened the Scrivener file several times and just couldn’t get on with it. I have some imposter syndrome around the topic, for sure. After all, Stephen King wrote a book On Writing! It’s also such a dauntingly large subject so I need to pick an angle, but it remains on the To Write list.
The surprise book of the year was The Relaxed Author, which I co-wrote with Mark Leslie Lefebvre — and we both did the audiobook narration.
It sprang out of an interview conversation and then we had so many comments saying it was needed, that we went ahead and wrote the book. We both had to clear our schedules to write it, but I’m glad we did. Lots of you have said it’s been useful in a year when we all needed to relax more.
Luckily, I finished it just before getting Covid and you can listen to us talking about our process and what we learned about each other in episode 575.
I intended to double down on selling direct which I have definitely achieved. There’s more I could do, but I sell ebooks and audiobooks every day from payhip.com/thecreativepenn. You get a good deal, and I get money in my bank account immediately.
I know many of you have used my tutorial on selling direct to set up your own direct sales, so I’m pleased that’s becoming more of a trend for indies.
The Creative Penn Website
In May 2021, Google updated their algorithm around page speed and some other metrics, so I implemented a new theme and some technical backend things on TheCreativePenn.com, one of those tasks that you just have to do sporadically with what is now a 13-year-old site!
You should now find it easier to search if you use the Search Bar on the Start Here page and there are more landing pages and resource pages for the most common things: editors, book cover design, tools for authors, etc.
If you run an author business, your website and email list are assets, just as much as your books. I frequently get offers for this site but of course, it’s not for sale. It is the hub for everything I do online, and it drives significant revenue — and importantly, I control it.
We have to maintain our backlist books, but we also have to maintain our backlist website/s. So this was a business-critical task that just had to be done.
The Creative Penn Podcast
It’s been an epic year for The Creative Penn Podcast with weekly episodes as usual, plus a lot of extra in-between-isodes and futurist shows (69 episodes in 2021 in total).
Thanks to my corporate sponsors and to my patrons at patreon.com/thecreativepenn for continuing to support the show. It helps me financially and also emotionally — particularly in this challenging year.
I did a survey in the last few weeks, so I’ll share the way ahead for the podcast as we head toward episode 700 in my new year goals episode.
The Creative Future
One of my biggest goals for 2021 was to dive deeper into the technological changes that accelerated due to the pandemic — and I said in my 2020 roundup, “I've been bored for a while now, with a feeling of stagnation in the status quo of the publishing industry. But I see things coming on the horizon that we need to prepare for, especially with the acceleration of digital transformation in the pandemic year.”
Things have moved much faster than even I expected, and in fact, much of what was considered futurist is now moving into the present. 2021 certainly ended with a lot more people knowing words like NFTs and metaverse!
I also intended 2021 to be a “year of expansion — creatively in terms of what I write, mentally in terms of the things I learn about, and physically, in terms of my health and where I travel.”
One out of three isn’t bad, as I certainly expanded my understanding of these areas, joined new communities, and have started to grasp how this could all look in the years to come.
My futurist episodes included:
- Blockchain and NFTs — Publishing on blockchain; NFTs for Authors; The Ownership Economy; Creatokia: A World of Digital Originals;
- The metaverse for authors and publishing: Web 3.0, VR, AR, and the Spatial Web — published in August 2021, before Facebook rebranded as Meta in October 2021 and the metaverse hit the news
- Co-writing with AI — Sudowrite; Non-fiction and art; Fiction (trad pub); Fiction (indie); AI-powered creativity
- Digital narration with AI Voices (Deep Zen)
- Plus, an interview with me on techno-optimism!
I also started putting these futurist elements into action in my creative work and business:
- I’ve incorporated Sudowrite into my process and used it in Tomb of Relics, and now include a Statement of AI usage in my Author’s Note, mainly for transparency reasons. I’ve also worked with Orna Ross at the Alliance of Independent Authors around shaping a submission on AI and intellectual property to the WIPO and the UK government, as well as contributing to the ALLi statement of practical and ethical guidelines around AI for writing
- I published a book on the Ethereum blockchain through BookChain – although I haven’t earned any ETH (or any other crypto-currency — yet!) It was more to test the process, and the marketplace for books on chain is more likely to be NFTs in 2022, until the bigger platforms adopt architecture changes (as Kickstarter is doing).
- I worked with Deep Zen to create an AI-narrated edition of a Co-writing a Book and also A Thousand Fiendish Angels — both of which are clearly marked as auto-narrated and have a badge on the cover, again, for transparency reasons. You can listen to samples at the end of episode 589, or on the audiobook pages on Payhip here.
I’ve published more futurist episodes than I expected because of the acceleration of change. While many of you appreciated these episodes and found them interesting, others didn’t find them so palatable.
In fact, I have received more hate and negativity — through emails, comments, and social media — in the last few months than I have received in my entire author career over these things.
There was even a moment when I thought I might separate out the futurist stuff into another private, paid podcast and website and never mention it again here, but my wonderful patrons — and many listeners by email and comments — helped me see that the information is worthwhile and important to keep sharing.
Change is hard, but it’s also inevitable.
I started sharing my journey here in 2008 in the early days of ebooks, print on demand, and later digital audio and then streaming, and then all the other things. Technology will keep changing and will bring us more opportunity and inevitably more challenge. I’ll keep sharing what I learn and you can expect more futurist episodes — and application of the technology — in 2022.
J.F. Penn — Thrillers, dark fantasy, crime, and horror
I found it incredibly hard to write fiction this year, so it’s not been a stellar year for J.F. Penn! I have journaled a LOT but that is not for publication, at least not for right now.
In terms of new creative works, I wrote Tomb of Relics (previous working title, Day of the Martyr). It was a hard-won book — and turned out as a novella, not a full-length novel — because I am usually inspired to write by my travels, which clearly, didn’t happen.
(My conversation with Becca Syme in episode 572 on strengths helped me understand why travel is so important for me.)
I wrote one new short story which I’ll publish in January (Blood, Sweat, and Flame), and edited and published a story I’ve been sitting on for a few years as it never seemed quite the right time to publish it — A Midwinter Sacrifice.
But being an indie author is not just about producing new work, it’s also about making the most of your intellectual property assets, and being a good publisher.
I pulled the first three ARKANE thrillers out of ACX exclusivity and took them wide. Plus, I engaged Michaelbrent Collings to help with my fiction book descriptions after his fantastic interview on the topic in episode 591. I’m in the middle of updating all of that through the publishing eco-system.
Books and Travel
My Books and Travel Podcast is now at 76 episodes and this year, I found solace in virtual escape and dreams of travel that the interviews provided me — and from the comments and emails, my listeners found that too. It is a podcast of love and still doesn’t bring me any direct income, because I haven’t written the travel books I intended to, but it has brought me happiness.
I’m also using the site as a blog to share articles and pictures from places I travel, so you can read and see the pictures from the St Cuthbert’s Way, even though I haven’t done a solo episode on it, or written the book yet.
If you’d like some virtual travel, or some musings on the deeper side of it all, just search for Books and Travel Podcast on your favourite app, or check out the backlist at BooksAndTravel.page/listen
Health, travel, walking
In my 2021 goals, I said, “I’m expecting it to be at least a full pandemic year — from March 2020 to March 2021, but I am really hoping to be back in the world in the second half of this year. I'm planning trips to Portugal and Japan, as well as some more ultra-marathons and another walking pilgrimage in the north of England. My plan is to work hard in the earlier months so I can have more time off later in the year for some much-needed travel, family catch-ups, and book research trips.”
Hmm, well, once again, not really as expected — but we made the most of our beautiful country and I appreciate the UK as a holiday destination more than ever! We did the following:
- Cycled from Oxford to Bath through the Cotswolds
- Walked along the Jurassic Coast and visited the gorgeous coastal town of Lyme Regis
- Walked in Puzzle Wood, part of the ancient Forest of Dean that inspired Tolkien’s Fangorn
- I walked the St Cuthbert’s Way from the borders of Scotland across Northumberland to Lindisfarne, Holy Island
- After an incredible amount of stress — and a double dose of bureaucratic hell and quarantine difficulties — we made it to Auckland, New Zealand. It’s a family trip and not a holiday, since my mother-in-law is immune-compromised, so we can’t do much, but it is warm and there is sea and bush to walk beside. Pics on Instagram and Facebook @jfpennauthor
My main financial goal for the year was to sustain The Creative Penn income at a steady level while freeing up time to write the books I want to write, and have time to play with the new technologies — and to do extra podcast episodes to report back.
While still a very good living, my revenue did drop this year — not unexpected given how much work I didn’t do!
I stopped doing webinars and most ads and pulled back on a lot of things, plus I didn’t write many books. I spent a lot of time on things that don’t bring in immediate revenue, but should add revenue streams in the future. I also said ‘no’ to many opportunities for income for mental health reasons, and just because it wasn’t interesting to me.
While I want to continue with the experimentation in 2022, I do want to try and lift my income again, so more on that in my 2022 goals.
Right, that’s about it for 2021. I don’t want to wish the time away, but I am glad the year is over!
I hope that you can look back and celebrate whatever you have achieved — even if that is just making it through alive! Writing remains for all of us a haven for our thoughts, not just words for publication — so I hope you have some time to step back, think and write about the year that is almost over.
If you’d like to share your thoughts, please leave a comment, or blog about it and tweet me the link. I’ll be back soon with my plans and goals for 2021.